At Define the Line, we absolutely love that our full-time job is to engage in meaningful conversations to help end workplace harassment.
Everyday, we get to come alongside teams and individuals to help them understand where their lines are when it comes to harassment, and then help them develop ways to hold those lines.
But what happens when we fail to hold our lines, and how can we learn from it?
Recently, a friend reached out to us looking for advice because she found herself in the unenviable place of trying to process a situation where she felt she failed to act when faced with harassment.
She’d been trying for a week to process the impact of what happened, but she couldn’t get past not standing up for herself and letting bad behavior get a hall pass, and a multitude of negative emotions had settled heavily on her for a long-term stay:
and many more
She believed that because she’d read (and supported) the Define the Line comic, participated in various Define the Line events, and even had her go-to phrase locked and loaded, she should have been ready for anything.
The truth of the matter is: No one can be ready for every situation. There is always a chance we’ll be caught off guard because on a planet of more than 7 billion people, we cannot anticipate all the ways that humans will behave badly towards one another.
That’s why it’s more common than you might think to forget your go-to phrase, shy away from a chance to be an ally, or not even realize what was happening to you (or someone else) until it’s too late to do anything.
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” —Winston Churchill
3 Steps To Take When You Don’t Define Your Line
#1 - Remember that this happens to everyone, and we mean everyone.
Even as professionals, we still find ourselves in situations like these, and we know firsthand (very recently, in fact) how these interactions can take up a lot of mental space.
We teach and educate others on how to speak up, and by all measures, we should literally be the experts. We’re getting more skilled at identifying these events as they're happening, yet, we, too, can find ourselves caught off guard and speechless.
#2 - Keep in mind that a key ingredient in healing is time.
Just like a scrape doesn’t heal instantly, an emotional wound also needs time to heal. And in both cases, sometimes they leave scars (and that’s okay).
Every person is made differently, so there’s no way to know how a situation will land on you or what kind of damage it will do. Be patient and expect some up days and some down ones.
#3 - Find some resources that will help you process what you’ve experienced.
There are many great resources out there, and below you’ll find some of our recent favorites.
The goal is to not let the negativeness of what happened fester. We want to acknowledge that it happened, process the emotions attached to it, learn from it, and move on.
“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. Close the door on the past. You don't try to forget the mistakes, but you don't dwell on it. You don't let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.” —Johnny Cash
2 Ways To Process What Happened
After something happens that packs an emotional wallop, it’s wise to take the time you need to process what exactly did happen.
Ruminating, or going over and over something in your mind without resolution, is not what we’re talking about. We mean reflection with the goal of being able to look at a situation objectively and actively learning from that experience.
The entire post is worth the read, and this is one of our favorite insights: “A useful way to prevent reflection from turning into rumination is to swap "I should have" for "What if." This helps us focus on learning from our mistakes instead of dwelling on them.
One way to help us learn vs. dwell is to put our thoughts down in writing, a.k.a. journaling.
The act of journaling can take many forms, and there’s no one right way to do it. You can grab your favorite artsy journal or a stack of scrap paper or even write in the sand (we haven’t tried that one yet). The goal is to find a quiet place, slow down and start working through your experience.
We’re big fans of prompts to help get the journaling ball rolling, and here’s a simple process we recommend:
Write out the scenario and include as many details as you possibly can.
Reflect on how it made you feel in the moment and afterward.
Jot down what you learned from the situation and how you wish you would have responded.
Write down positive affirmations about yourself such as:"This event does not define me" or "I'm an expert in my field." (If this step feels out of reach for you, enlist the help of others and check out the affirmations exercise below).
2. Mindful Cognitive Emotional Processing
We’re HR nerds, not therapists, so we won’t wade too far into the therapy side of things.
What we can tell you is that this type of emotional processing integrates mindfulness strategies to help us better understand and manage our thoughts and emotions so that we can find some relief from feelings of distress.
In a nutshell, it’s about looking at a situation objectively and moving through a journey of awareness, acceptance and action.
If this deep dive into mindful emotional processing feels like your cup of tea, this worksheet is a great place to start.
2 Ways To Prepare For When It Happens Again (Because It Will)
We wish we could tell you that if you practice your go-to phrase often enough, you’ll never fail to define your line again. But as we said in the beginning, there is no way to anticipate every which way that another human may behave badly.
The best strategy is to prepare for those times when your line fails (because it will happen) so that you can better combat those negative emotions and begin to learn from and move past the situation.
1. Practice Mindfulness (Now vs. Later)
The practice of mindfulness has been shown to produce many physical and emotional benefits, especially when practiced regularly.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “mindfulness is a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.”
And for our context, mindfulness is especially great at helping us find some balance between the negative and positive emotions that come from defining (or not defining) our own lines.
However, mindfulness is a practice, so it’s something best done now to prepare us for when we need it most, such as during times of distress.
There are more mindfulness resources out there than we can count, and the following are just two of our current favorites.
Read: Now Is a Great Time To Start Practicing Mindfulness, by Matthias Birk for Harvard Business Review
Psychologist and writer Matthias Birk published this article as a response to the anger, fear and grief we’ve been feeling collectively due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Do these emotions sound familiar?)
The crux of the article is identifying how we usually handle strong, negative emotions. A common response is to bypass them altogether, but that can lead to all sorts of long-term problems. Mindfulness helps “allow us to get in touch with our feelings and resolve them in a productive way.”
Watch: Mindful Mondays, YouTube series by Lauren Ziegler Lauren Ziegler is a meditation coach and certified yoga therapist, and she has an amazing YouTube series presented by the Center for Mindfulness at Colorado State University.
We recommend starting with this practice about self-compassion because it’s an intro to self-compassion and focuses on understanding the importance of thought management when it comes to negativity.
2. Prepare Your Go-To Affirmations (Ahead Of Time)
What can make it so difficult to process times when you don’t define your line are “the voices.” These negative thoughts can tell you some pretty horrible things about yourself, and they are skilled at layering on the guilt associated with not acting in a way you thought you should.
What we need in these situations are affirmations that remind us of good and true things about ourselves— that others believe are true.
No matter what these negative voices are saying, there are stronger voices that believe you are awesome and will remind you of that regardless of what you did or didn’t do. We just have to find out what those good voices are saying.
Much like memorizing your go-to phrase to prepare for when we define our lines, we can memorize go-to phrases for when we don’t. These affirmations can serve as your boxing gloves to help you combat those negative voices.
The Affirmations Exercise
Select 3-5 people who you trust and who sincerely care about your mental and emotional health.
Ask each one if they’d be willing to share one affirmation (about you!) that you could memorize and repeat when you need extra emotional support and encouragement. This affirmation could be as simple as "You're awesome!" or something more specific.
Write each affirmation on a 3x5 card (or something similar) and spend quality time memorizing each statement.
Make sure to store these affirmations in an easy-to-remember place so you can pull them out when you need them.
A Real-Deal Example
The same friend from the beginning of this post had the idea for this exercise and decided to practice it on herself. She assumed her besties would respond, but she had no idea how positive the response would be or the impact it would have (on her and on them).
She sent an email to three friends on a Saturday, and by Sunday afternoon, all three had responded back with well more than just one affirmation. (She received 26!) As it turned out, her reason for reaching out wasn’t unique to her at all.
Here a few of the responses she received:
“This is so cool. I have totally found myself in the same situation as you, and even though it happened years ago, one situation in particular where I didn't speak up has stuck with me.”
“Yessssss, I love all of this. And it is laughable that you thought I'd stop at one [affirmation].”
“YOU ARE ENOUGH.”
The beauty of this exercise, as our friend shared, was that while her recent experience made her want to hide, her friends’ thoughtful and genuine affirmations made her feel seen—in so many good ways. And this allowed her to balance her weaknesses against her strengths.
The goal of this type of preparation is to have an additional tool in our tool belts to weather the times when other humans behave badly towards us, and to help us to not place additional guilt and trauma on our own selves.
“It’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce that counts.” —Zig Ziglar
We See You
Whatever happened to bring you to this post, we are here for you and we see you. The fact that you care enough to seek out a post such as this speaks volumes about your desire for real change when faced with harassment.
If you need more words of encouragement, we share a lot of those on social media at @definethelinecomic. You can DM us there or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Quotations source: 30 Powerful Quotes on Failure, curated by Ekaterina Walter for Forbes.com